Social Justice Webinar: Religion and the 2022 Midterm Elections
Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center, and Elaine C. Kamarck, senior fellow in the governance studies program and director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, discuss what to expect from the 2022 midterm elections, how religion might influence these elections, and what has changed since 2020. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service, moderates.
Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice Webinar Series. This series is exploring social justice issues and how they shape policy at home and abroad through discourse with members of the faith community. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Father Thomas Reese with us to moderate today’s discussion on religion in the 2022 midterm elections. Father Reese is currently a senior analyst at Religion News Service. Previously, he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter and editor-in-chief at America magazine. A Jesuit priest ordained in 1974, Father Reese was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University where he has authored—or where he authored three books.
So Tom, thank you for being with us and doing this. I will turn this over to you to introduce our distinguished panel.
REESE: Thank you. Thank you, Irina.
We do have a terrific panel for this topic of religion in the 2022 midterm election.
Alan Cooperman is director of Religion Research at the Pew Research Center. He is an expert on religion’s role in U.S. politics, and has reported on religion in Russia, the Middle East, and Europe. Before joining the Pew Research Center, Mr. Cooperman was a national reporter and editor at the Washington Post, and a foreign correspondent for Associated Press and U.S. News and World Report. He is author or editor of numerous reports on religious communities in the United States and around the world. Mr. Cooperman has appeared on numerous media outlets including NPR, BBC, and C-SPAN.
And also on our panel is Elaine Kamarck, who is a senior fellow in governance studies program as well as the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. She is an expert on American electoral politics and government innovation and reform in the United States, the OECD nations, and developing countries. Dr. Kamarck researches the presidential nomination system and American politics, and has worked on many American presidential campaigns. She is the author of numerous books on politics and public policy. Dr. Kamarck is also a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and makes regular appearances in the media.
So I think we’re going to have a tremendous conversation with this panel. Let me start it off by asking some questions of our panelists. I want to start with Alan. He’s the data person on the panel.
Polling agencies like the Pew Research Center report that most Black Protestants and Jews vote Democratic; most white Evangelicals vote Republican. Catholics are more divided, with most white Catholics voting Republican and Hispanic Catholics voting Democratic. What more can you tell us about the impact of religion on voting in the United States?
COOPERMAN: Well, I think you hit a lot of the highlights, Tom. Maybe our work is done for the day. (Laughter.) You left out one big group: the religiously unaffiliated—people who don’t identify with any religion. That’s a large and growing share of the population. It’s probably something in the neighborhood of 30 percent of all U.S. adults. It’s a smaller share of the electorate of voters but still probably something like a quarter, and that group you can think of as almost like a political counterweight to white Evangelical Protestants. The unaffiliated lean at a strongly Democratic tilt, as strongly Democratic as white Evangelical Protestants tilt Republicans, and they are groups of somewhat similar size. And of course turnout is always going to vary and, depending on the issues in particular elections, some religious groups may be more motivated to vote than others, and we can get into that.
But there are a couple of other things that I will mention, that come to my mind right off the top of the head of interesting things to say, I think, beyond the basic patterns. Those patterns are pretty stable, but they have been moving a little bit over time. And one kind of big way of capturing that is just the idea of polarization, which we are all familiar with in our political world. But you see it in religion and politics as well. So the groups that lean Republican and have leaned Republican—such as white Catholics and Evangelical Protestants—have been trending even more Republican over time. And the groups that lean Democratic, well, particularly the unaffiliated, have been trending even more Democratic over time.
Another thing to think about is that these same sort of patterns also show up when one divides the electorate in even more granular ways, bringing into account things like race and ethnicity. So just for example, if you look at Catholics—you’re absolutely right—white Catholics lean Republican; Hispanic Catholics lean Democratic, but in general not only does religion affect politics, but politics affects religion. And if you look at Catholic Republicans, Catholic Republicans in their social attitudes, particularly their political issue priorities, they look a lot more like all Republicans than they look like other Catholics. And Catholic Democrats similarly really look in a lot of ways—in terms of, again, their attitudes, their issue priorities going into this and other elections—past elections—look a lot more like other Democrats than they look like Catholics as a whole.
If you look at Latinos—and we should go into Latinos because they are a really interesting group we’ve got here—Latino voters overall in their political identification are about two-thirds Democratic and one-third Republican, so a ratio of about two-to-one overall leaning Democratic.
Now if you look at Latinos who are religiously unaffiliated, they are even more Democratic; they are three-to-one, sort of mirroring the unaffiliated as a whole. If you look at Latino Catholics, they’re a little less than two-to-one. They are like one-and-a-half-to-one, and if you look at Latinos who are Evangelical Protestants, they lean Republican. Now not as much as Evangelicals do overall, but they lean by about one-and-a-half-to-one ratio. So 50 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat in some of the more recent data that I’ve seen in terms of their generic ballot inclinations going into this election; that is, what share of them say they will vote for a Democratic or Republican candidate in their congressional district in this election.
So those patterns that you outlined—big picture—over time they are becoming even more sort of differentiated, and also they show up in lots of other ways when you look at the electorate.
REESE: Elaine, you’ve been involved in political campaigns so I’d like to focus in on how political parties use religion in campaigning. It seems like the Republicans are more comfortable using the religion card. Conservatives are more comfortable talking about religion, whereas the Democrats seem to talk less about religion. Progressives tend to talk less about religion. What’s going on there, and what do you think should be going on there?
KAMARCK: Well, I think Alan gave the answer to that which is that of the unaffiliated group, many of whom are simply not religious at all, they are mostly Democrats, OK? So Democrats have been reflecting their base, so to speak, when they don’t talk about religion.
I personally got in great trouble in the Al Gore campaign in 2000 when I was quoted in the New York Times as saying, we’re going to take back God for the Democrats, and—(laughs)—because Gore himself is a very religious person. He actually went to divinity school. Anyway, that created a little firestorm inside the campaign.
So traditionally, that is a reflection of the party. The party has been pro-choice very heavily for a long time, and that runs up against protests from different religious groups—Evangelicals and some Catholics. So, it has been—it makes sense that Democrats don’t talk about religion as much as Republicans do.
REESE: Is there any way that Democrats could talk about religion safely or use religion in attracting—because there are a lot of religious people in the country.
KAMARCK: Well, in fact, people like myself who are Roman Catholic and who are—who identify with the sort of charitable take-care-of-the-poor piece of Catholicism more than with the—some of the other cultural pieces, have tried to emphasize over the years that in fact the Democratic party’s traditional concern for the poor, for the downtrodden, for those who are discriminated against is in fact quite in keeping with our Christian faith, with our Christian theology. And so to the extent that Democrats do try to talk about religion, they do talk about it in that context.
I don’t think they’ve done a very good job. I don’t think they’ve done as good a job as they should be doing on that, but that is the Democratic Party’s opening, and I think somebody is going to come along at some point and have a very powerful, powerful message on that piece particularly.
COOPERMAN: Can I jump in, Tom? Everything Elaine said is 100 percent right as far as I can see, but of course, especially midterm elections are all about individual districts, and they’re not national. And so there are certainly exceptions. One big set of exceptions concerns African-American candidates because Black Americans—as I think everybody knows—are both a highly religious group and highly Democratic at the same time. And African-American candidates tend to be among those—not only African-American candidates, but they do tend to be among those who are more likely to talk about faith on the hustings. So Raphael Warnock in Georgia would be an obvious example of that, but he’s not the only one. And there are individual Democrats, particularly in the South and other parts of the country, depending on their own background, who are more comfortable about talking about faith than others.
One thing that I think—I’m not a political practitioner, but I’ve heard many people say the thing that’s the biggest turnoff to voters is that someone is not sincere in what they are talking about, and indeed if someone who is not particularly religious in their own life starts trying to feign religiosity on the campaign hustings, it might not work out very well.
KAMARCK: It did work out for Donald—I did point out it did work out well for Donald Trump. (Laughs.) He’s maybe the exception to the rule.
REESE: Alan, actually, that—
COOPERMAN: When we polled on Trump, not a lot of Trump supporters actually thought he was such a highly religious man, and not a lot of them thought that Donald Trump actually showed very high morals. What people said about Donald Trump—particularly religious voters, particularly Evangelical Protestants—is that they thought that he fought for the things that they believed in. So I’m not sure that people were deceived and believed that Donald Trump was actually strongly religious so much as they saw him as—as we used to say about dictators overseas: he may be an SOB but he’s my SOB—(laughter)—that sort of a calculation going on.
REESE: Alan, another big thing that people have been talking about this past year is Christian nationalism, and you’ve done some research on this. Tell us about what you found about Christian nationalism.
COOPERMAN: Well, thank you, Tom. In fact, we just put out a big report this morning, and that’s one reason why I was eager to speak today. You can find it on our website at pewresearch.org.
We asked Americans about the term, Christian nation, whether the United States was intended by its founders to be a Christian nation, whether it is a Christian nation, whether it should be a Christian nation. And we further dug into that to ask people what they mean by that, why they say that, and to ask about a whole lot of questions that have to do with separation of church and state.
And the bottom line, I think, is that this term Christian nationalism has gained a lot of currency among, oh, the chattering classes, the cognoscenti, the pundits, et cetera in the past year or two. A majority of Americans say they have heard little or nothing about it. It’s not—it’s not a broad thought.
On the other hand, the idea that the United States is a Christian nation does seem to have pretty widespread appeal. So 60 percent of Americans say that they think that the Founders intended for the United States to be a Christian nation; 45 percent say they think the United States should be a Christian nation, and 33 percent—a third—say that they think the United States now is a Christian nation.
REESE: Now is that of everyone or is that of the people who say they are—
COOPERMAN: That’s everyone. That’s the general public.
REESE: OK, not just the—
COOPERMAN: Right, all U.S. adults aged eighteen and older, and this is a representative sample, and it’s weighted to be representative of the whole country—of the adult population of the United States.
But when we ask what people mean by that, people who don’t think the United States should be a Christian nation, don’t think that it is, and don’t think that the Founders intended it to be, they think of a Christian nation as a place that imposes Christian values or teachings by law on the—and they think of something akin to a theocracy.
Many of the people who support the notion of a Christian nation have a kind of softer, more general idea about what it means. In some cases they mean that it indicates simply that a majority of the U.S. population is Christian, which it is. It is north of 60 percent of U.S. adults identify as Christian. Those numbers have been dropping, by the way, fairly rapidly over the last fifteen years, but it’s still a solid majority of Americans who identify as one flavor or another of Christian.
Many of them also have in mind when they say the United States is or should be a Christian nation just think it should be a good, moral place with kind of traditional moral values. Some have in mind that it should—they should be kind of biblical values broadly speaking. But what’s interesting is when we asked specific questions like, should the federal government declare the United States as a Christian nation or should the federal government never declare that the U.S. has any official religion, well, most of the public—two-thirds of Americans—say it should never declare any official religion. And even among those who say they think the United States should be a Christian religion, most of them do not want the federal government to officially declare Christian religion. And most of them do not want the United States to stop enforcing separation of church and state. So separation of church and state—the concept of it—is supported by a majority of the population overall, and it’s even supported by most of the people who think that the United States should be a Christian nation.
And similarly, actually, roughly two-thirds of Americans say churches and other religious organizations should stay out of politics, at least on a sort of day-to-day basis, and they certainly should endorse candidates for office. And even many of the people who support the notion of Christian nation also take that position.
So I think what’s going on here is that—one of the things you see going on in this campaign is that there are some people—mostly commentators, scholars—who are talking about Christian nationalism, and they mean that term in very pejorative terms. It’s very strongly equated with racism, with theocracy, with misogyny, with patriarchal attitudes, and so on. And they see it as a very bad thing.
But at the same time, there are some political candidates who are claiming the mantle of Christian nationalism, and you might wonder, well, what’s going on here. What’s going on is that they’re kind of talking past each other. The people who are condemning Christian nationalism have something very different in mind from the people—again, that broad section of the American public—not necessarily a majority but close to it in many cases—who think the country is or should be a Christian nation. They don’t mean by that that it should impose Christian teachings on people or that it should stop having separation of church and state where the non-Christians should be kept out of elected office. That’s not what they mean by it.
REESE: Elaine, what do you think about Christian nationalism? Do you think it’s a threat? Do you think it’s a growing phenomenon? How do you think politicians and especially religious leaders ought to talk about this?
KAMARCK: Well, I think—just moving off of Alan’s comments, I think that what we’re seeing here is a basket of far-right attitudes and beliefs that a piece of the public has, and that that group is pretty strong in some places, and the backlash to it is pretty strong. I mean, this is a—I see Christian nationalism as a part and parcel of our overall extreme polarization; that you have in certain parts of the country people who believe it’s a Christian nation, think that the Democrats are trying to get rid of Christmas—we hear that every—we hear that every year, right? (Laughs.) And the Democrats are trying to get rid of Christmas, get rid of your guns, et cetera; groom your children to be homosexuals. I mean, there’s a whole basket of sort of attitudes that are deeply held in some parts of the country.
What is staggering to me is how these attitudes, which have always been with us throughout American history, have now settled in geographic clumps because Americans have moved to where others are like them. And so we have a situation where we really do have very red and blue states; not just in terms of their voting, but in terms of a whole slew of issues like lifestyle, like religion, et cetera.
When I worked for Al Gore, we used to get these reports about Tennessee every morning and what was going on in Tennessee, and one of the things that happened in that period of time is that people who were—whites who were homeschooling their children started moving to Tennessee. At one point it had the highest rate of homeschooled children in the country, and they were largely Christian, and of course, if you are homeschooling your children, you want to be close to others who are homeschooling your children so that you can create for them a social life, and soccer teams, and things like that.
And so the country has been doing this in ways that are just surprising, even to me, and I’ve been studying politics for several decades now. And I think Christian nationalism is part of that far-right cultural and political movement that is very powerful. But it has its backlash as well.
And so here we are about to be in an election that is as tight as can possibly be, OK, where there are four, five, six Senate races that are impossible to call right now, where everything is turning on very small changes in turnout, and that’s our politics today.
REESE: We have about five more minutes for our discussion before we open it up to questions from everyone on the call, so use the little hand and type in your questions that you would like to make.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues in this election campaign. The Republicans are stressing inflation, immigration, and crime; the Democrats want to talk about abortion, Trump, and threats to democracy.
Alan, what do the people—(laughs)—what do the people care about?
COOPERMAN: Yeah, well, the economy is number one for the general public—pretty much as it is in most elections, and very solidly number one. It won’t surprise anybody to know that over the summer, after the Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case that overturned the Roe v. Wade and declared that the Constitution does not enshrine a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, that the salience and the importance of the issue of abortion and reproductive rights rose very much, especially for Democrats.
At the same time, some of the big issues that had been important in the 2020 campaign—such as COVID and COVID restrictions—those were falling way up over the summer. Certainly, inflation, gas prices, and those kinds of things; crime and public safety, those have increased in recent months.
And the thing that’s so interesting is—as you pointed out, Tom—how the importance of various issues differs so much between Democrats and Republicans. And it’s sometimes tempting to point to media ecospheres for that and attribute it to those who watch CNN and MSNBC versus those who watch Fox News, or where people get their information.
But I think at this point so much of this is now baked into the cake. And if you look, again, at religious groups, one of the things you find is that the big distinction is not that Catholics as a whole, for example, have different issue priorities than Protestants do, or than Jews do. The big difference is, in some ways, between Republican Catholics and Democratic Catholics, and among Protestants between Republicans and Democrats, and within the Jewish community between Republicans and Democrats, and so on. The hyper-partisan polarization is really apparent any time you dig just even a little bit below the surface of these numbers.
REESE: Elaine, there are two theories of how to run a campaign. One is to try and win over the swing voters, and the other is to get out your base. What do you think the two parties are doing during this campaign, during this midterm election cycle, especially with the stress they put on these issues?
KAMARCK: Well, one thing that my colleague, Bill Galston, and I have been writing about for three to four decades, I hate to admit, is, in fact, the difference between the two parties when it comes to the base theory versus the persuasion theory.
The Republicans have always had—for at least the last four decades they have an advantage in the base theory, because the number of conservatives in America are higher than the number of liberals. Sometimes it’s been as high as two to one. Recently that’s shrunk a bit, because the number of liberals have crept up. But still there are substantially more conservatives in the country than there are liberals, people who call themselves conservatives.
What that means is for Republicans it’s a little bit easier to run a base campaign, get out your vote, than it is for Democrats. Democrats have a problem here. OK, they’re just—their liberal basis is simply not big enough.
REESE: But aren’t there more Democrats than Republicans in the country?
KAMARCK: It’s about evenly split. And then it’s sort of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. There’s a lot of independents, who, as we know, are—some are Democratic leaners; some are Republican leaners.
I think the interesting thing about this is that both parties right now—if we take it to this election, both parties are trying desperately to get out their base. But for the Democrats, the question is: is there one issue that could, in fact, pull some people who might be voting Republican into the Democratic camp? And that issue is abortion.
Abortion is, I think, fundamentally different than some of the other political issues where—and I think Alan alluded to this—where, if you’re a Democrat, you think inflation is something that Joe Biden is working hard at. And if you’re a Republican, you think inflation is something that Joe Biden caused. OK, and it’s just—your party ID comes really first.
Abortion is different. First of all, the two parties are very clearly different on this. There is no ambiguity about where the parties stand. And it is deeply personal and it is intense. And the one thing that politics and polling can’t do really well is measure intensity.
So I think that we’re in a situation where the Democrats are facing a pretty grim election day. And their one hope is that new voters, younger voters, women voters, are going to cross over, so to speak, turn away from their traditional Republican leaning, and vote Democratic on this issue. And you see that in their ads. You see that in—we’ve seen that in the four special elections that have happened this year. And I think that that’s where the Democrats—if they manage to do better than expected, it will be on that issue. It’ll be because of that issue.
REESE: That’s terrific. The three of us have had a wonderful conversation here, and now we want to invite the other participants on our call to come in with their questions. So I hand it over to our other moderator.
OPERATOR: Thank you, Father Reese.
(Gives queueing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Ani Zonneveld from Muslims for Progressive Values.
ZONNEVELD: Good morning, afternoon. This is a fascinating conversation. And my question is towards Alan.
I know you had a ten-year study of American Muslims from—I think starting from 2007, 2013, and 2017. And the trajectory of the values—you could see that Muslims were leaning towards more progressive values—LGBT rights, critical thinking, reinterpreting Islam for the twenty-first century.
So what I’d like to know is that I’ve been speaking to traditional imams in America, and what they’ve said is that more Americans voted for Trump the second time around than the first time around. I’d like to see a study on that and if you could do that.
And number two, I have also seen how Muslims now have borrowed the modus operandi from the Christian right in substantiating their discriminating values, particularly towards LGBT and gender issues, from the Christian right, and using the Religious Restoration Act to justify that discrimination. And I know there’s a lot of focus on Christian and Catholics and some Jewish communities, but I would like to see more in the Muslim community, if you will.
REESE: Alan, what kind of data do we have on the Muslim community?
COOPERMAN: Not as good as we would like, because Muslims are a relatively small share of the U.S. population, and to get a good sample of Muslims is really not easy. When we’ve done Muslim-American surveys, we’ve done them in multiple languages, and we’ve put a lot of effort, and it’s very costly. And it’s very worth doing, but we can only do them periodically.
So, as the questioner noted, we’ve done three. We’re hoping to do another one. I don’t have a time certain for it, but we do have plans on the drawing board. They’ve become more expensive and more complicated over time. I also like to think they’ve gotten a little bit better over time.
In general, the Muslim-American population does lean Democratic. I’m not sure that I really have good data particularly on actual voting patterns. That’s a really difficult thing, both from the general public and especially for small groups, because in America we have people vote in secret. So we have exit polls, but the exit polls don’t give very good data on small religious groups. We can ask people how they voted, but then you get post facto declarations that we just know factually are not always correct.
So the best data on actual voting comes from, I think—and maybe Elaine will disagree with me; political scientists have different views on this—but what’s called validated voter studies, where you combine various types of data and you combine public data on who actually voted with a probability sample of Americans and ask them how they voted. And so then you are discounting the people who tell you how they voted but they didn’t actually vote.
And when you look at that validated voter data and look at Donald Trump, first of all, Donald Trump won in 2016 and did not win in 2020. And it’s not the case that more Americans voted for him in 2020 than in 2016. That’s not so. But he did gain in some groups. And depending on exactly which validated voter study, you look at, et cetera, some people say he gained ten points among Latinos. Some people say nine. Some people say eight or five. But I think there’s a general feeling that he gained a little bit among Latinos. There are some other subgroups of the population he gained in.
Biden, the Democratic candidate, did better among independents than Hillary Clinton did in 2020—I’m sorry, in 2016—and probably did a little bit better among suburban voters. So, there are changes, but it’s also true that both elections were very close. And it’s also true that, going into this midterm election, it’s close. And I wish I could tell you, I wish I could tell Ani, that I really know what exactly the voting intentions of Muslim-American voters are today and how they compare to the past, but the data is just not that good.
I can say fairly confidently that Muslim Americans lean Democratic. They’re more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. But I’m not sure exactly what that margin is, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out in this particular election. I also don’t know about turnout, enthusiasm of Muslim-American voters. Like Catholic voters, Muslim Americans, many of them are both traditionally religious, or especially, like, Latino Catholic voters. They’re both traditionally religious but also Democratic-leaning. And those two things can sort of cut in different directions, depending on the issues involved in a particular campaign.
REESE: OK, let’s take the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Tom McWhertor from World Renew. He writes: How does the mix of white supremacy and Christian nationalism change the character of this discussion since 2016?
REESE: Elaine, you want to take that question?
I think that those two threads and the consistent support of Donald Trump for those two threads has made them stronger, OK. And it has also made them—gotten them into mainstream politics and mainstream debate. I mean, we did always have white supremacists in the United States. That’s for sure. We did have a group that you could call Christian nationalists. But they were always regarded as on the fringe of the Republican Party.
They have now become the mainstream of the Republican Party, causing some more traditional Republicans to leave that party or to leave it temporarily, I mean, Liz Cheney being the prime example of that.
So what you’ve got is you’ve got a group—those two groups you mentioned used to be on the fringes. They are now much more the mainstream of the Republican Party. There’s a civil war inside the Republican Party, because some people want to retain its traditional values and emphasis on business and low regulation and low taxes. And that, I think, is going to be fought out. It was fought out, to a certain extent, in the primaries, where Donald Trump did very well and some of those candidates did very well.
And, of course, one of the things we will be watching in the general election, though, is, how did those candidates who won on these issues by sending the dog whistles out on white supremacy, et cetera, how did they do in the general election? What are their margins? OK, did they win or did they lose? Or if it’s a very Republican state and they win, what’s their margin? Is the margin the same as Republican margins used to be, say, four years ago, or has it shrunk?
So those are the sorts of things we’re going to be watching. But basically these—this is now the modern Republican Party, and we’re going to now have a test as to how well it does in the general—in a general election without Trump actually on the ballot.
REESE: Thank you.
COOPERMAN: Can I throw in—
COOPERMAN: Can I throw in one thing? When people talk about Christian nationals, they don’t always throw in the word “white.” And it’s important. White Christian nationalism and Christian nationalism may be two different things, because let me just say that attitudes that are used as markers of Christian nationalism are, on the whole, as prevalent among Black Americans and Hispanic Americans as they are among white Americans.
So what I mean by that is, for example, a question like should the United States be a Christian nation? Is the United States a Christian nation? Should teachers be allowed to teach Christian—be allowed to lead Christian prayers in public schools? Should the federal government stop enforcing separation of church and state? Should the federal government advocate for specifically Christian values?
So those positions are actually, roughly speaking in most cases, as popular among—now, it’s not necessarily a majority, but they’re as popular among Black Americans and Hispanic Americans as they are among white Americans. Those are not white-only positions.
Now, when you then throw white supremacy in on top of those things, you may be talking about a different mix, because what I was trying to say about the whole notion of a Christian nation, for many people that’s a pretty soft notion. It’s not necessarily an exclusivist notion. For many people the word Christian, who are Christians, it just means good values. It means traditional thinking, et cetera. It isn’t necessarily advocating a theocracy.
Now, when you throw white supremacy onto it and add a bunch of other caveats, then maybe you’re talking about something different, actually, a more compact and—oh, what’s the word I want? Certainly from the point of view of progressives, a more poisonous set of positions than—but again, these things—these positions actually—I just want to emphasize, these positions have pretty wide appeal.
REESE: OK, next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Sana Tayyen from the University of Redlands, who writes: We see a lot about how Christian nationalists want to shape America within our borders. What about their views in terms of America’s role in the rest of the world? Do they want us to present ourselves to the rest of the world as a Christian nation? What does that mean for how we conduct our foreign policy?
REESE: What do you think about that, Elaine?
KAMARCK: Well, I don’t know what I think about that. I can tell you that the way these values have most impacted our foreign policy is in a very simple phenomenon that occurs absolutely regularly whenever we change parties, which is USAID—if there’s a Democrat in office, USAID is permitted to give funding to entities that provide abortions abroad. And the minute a Republican comes in, they cut that off. OK, so literally our foreign aid in that particular instance of abortion is directly affected by religion and by the religious coalitions that make up one or the other party.
Other than that, I’m just not sure that I know the answer to that. And Tom or Alan might be better capable to answer that.
REESE: Sounds like a good answer to me.
COOPERMAN: In the past, when I’ve tried to dissect on particular questions about foreign policy—so not a little like a broad question, how should the U.S. conduct foreign policy, but particular questions about particular wars, particular events, treaties, and so on. When we’ve looked at that and we’ve analyzed it, people’s religious views don’t seem to have very much independent effect on that.
Now, the issue of abortion might be different, especially, overseas and support for it. That might be one where religious views have an independent effect. But basically what I want to say is people’s views on foreign policy, as with so many domestic policies, are primarily shaped by their political partisanship. And so it’s really not—again, it’s not a Christian versus non-Christian thing. It’s a Republican versus Democratic thing, primarily in public opinion.
REESE: OK, we’ve got about fifteen minutes left. So I’ll ask the panel to be crisp in responding so that we can get in as many questions as possible.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Laura George from the Oracle Institute.
GEORGE: Hi. Good afternoon.
I’m in southwestern Virginia at the tip of the Bible Belt and see a lot of the rural movement toward the far right. And we were talking a minute ago about maybe not that their numbers are growing but that they’ve become more vocal. And my question has to do with actually what I see as a growing “God gap” in that, using spiral dynamics as a model, what we’re seeing, I think, is that prior stage-four nationalists on this model are becoming stage-three neonationalists. I see the spiral collapsing. And at the other end of the spectrum, what I see are the millennials, and the Gen Z, and the people who you guys categorize as the “nones” or unaffiliated are actually moving toward more sophisticated views of the godhead.
So my question has to do with this growing “God gap,” which is a term we use here at Oracle. How do you see that impacting the future of America when there’s so little common ground left? And also we believe that your view of the godhead necessarily defines how you operate in the world.
REESE: Either of you want to try that?
KAMARCK: Well, I’ll just take a stab at this. I mean, in this whole area there are major generational changes going on. I was struck by—I think it was Alan’s data at Pew that the Christian nationalism, white Christian nationalism, was most popular among older Republican Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. And as we know, the Evangelical movement has sort of slowed its growth. It’s not attracting as many young people as it did.
We know in our church, the Roman Catholic Church, that there’s fewer young people attending mass regularly, et cetera, than there has been in the past. So we’re looking at a change, a demographic change, that I think is going to be quite significant.
I think it poses a challenge for organized—a big challenge for organized religion, and I think it will have political consequences as these generations move into and out of the electorate, which they are doing.
So I don’t think there’s anything necessarily permanent about this because so much of this is generational. The Trump phenomenon is generational. The sense of white grief is heavily heard among older white men who grew up in an era when they thought that their status as white men were going to guarantee them a certain amount of prestige and a certain amount of success in the world, and it didn’t necessarily work out that way for everyone.
I think there’s a generational aspect to this that will change as we go forward.
REESE: Let me follow up on that by asking the question, we’ve been focused on how religion impacts politics. What about the other way around? How is American politics changing religion?
COOPERMAN: I think it’s an excellent question, and one of the things that a number of scholars—Michelle Margolis among them—I’ll just mention as one, but by no means alone—have been pointing out is increasing research that suggests that in many cases people form their political attachments before they form their religious attachments.
So during the course of a lifetime and especially in young adult years, people come of age, separate from their parents and in some cases change, and don’t adopt either the political affiliation or the religious affiliation of their parents in any event often go through a period of questioning and so on.
And a lot of the research now suggests that it’s just as common, maybe more common, certainly important to think of it moving as people’s political attachments affecting their religious attachments. And so when we think about the growth of the unaffiliated— which is now this very large blob that really needs to be disaggregated, not just as one sort of all the same kind of people, but a variety of different types—but, well, 30 percent of the overall U.S. adult population and something like 40 percent of adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine—that’s a really big group—and one theory about why those folks disassociate from religion is political. And I don’t think this is the entire explanation, but part of it is that it’s a backlash, in part, against the entanglement of religion with politics—and particularly conservative religion and conservative politics—in the United States.
And as Michael Hout and Claude Fischer sort of elaborated this theory and said, basically, what folks are saying—if that’s what religion is, then I don’t want any part of religion. Now, there are other folks saying, oh, hey, but wait, that’s not what religion is. Religion isn’t all that. There’s plenty of other kinds of religion. It’s not all conservative religion and conservative politics entangled. But that’s part of what’s going on.
And if we look at the unaffiliated as a whole—Laura, I apologize I’m not actually familiar with the specific sets of diagrams and analyses that you’re talking about, but I would say that the unaffiliated, from my point of view, should be and can be disaggregated a bunch of ways.
And one of those ways is between the people who are kind of—they’re nonreligious in principle. They’ve taken a thoughtful position, and they feel that they are atheist or agnostic. And they’ll tell you that, and they’ve thought about that. But there’s a bigger—there’s another group and it’s probably a bigger group that is basically uninterested in religion.
And they’re not necessarily atheist or agnostic, and they’re not necessarily anti-religious. Many of them will tell us they believe in God. Some will tell us they pray. But they’re basically disinterested in religion, and when we ask questions about their levels of knowledge, for example, two totally different groups.
Atheists and agnostics have extremely high levels of education and very high levels of knowledge about religion. Whereas the sort of disinterested part of the unaffiliated have lower levels of education and much lower levels of theological sophistication, and of understanding the history of religion, and an ability to answer factual questions about religion.
So I agree with you. These are two different groups. To be clear, both of those groups are growing in size. Like the number of Americans and the share of Americans who are atheists, agnostics—those who are principled non-religious—and the sheer kind of—I’m going to, again, use this term—the sort of disinterested nonreligious.
There may be more than just disinterest going on, but that’s part of it. They’re both growing as a share of the population.
REESE: OK. I think we have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Galen Carey from the National Association for Evangelicals.
I wanted to dig a little deeper on the question of how politics is impacting religion, and as a—I represent Evangelical Christians, not only white but of all ethnicities. And what we find is that politics in many ways is hijacking the Evangelical brand, and so that you have now even Evangelical Buddhists, for example, who don’t share any of our theological beliefs, but they have said, oh, that must be someone who’s politically conservative and so on.
So it’s a considerable distress to us or challenge how to maintain the religious or theological grounding to our identity, and also, just to illustrate that we have a whole variety of political commitments across the board, although there are some that are more numerous than others. So I wonder, is that something that you all also are seeing, and is that happening with other groups? Or is it mostly with us?
KAMARCK: I can say that it’s happening with lots of groups because what has happened to our politics for a wide variety of reasons—and we’ve had lots of books written on it here at Brookings and other places—is that as America has become more polarized, your partisan identification colors everything else, OK. Your choice of religion. It colors where you live. It colors who you marry, who you fall in love with.
I recently had a friend, a widow, who finally found a very nice man, and she was dating him. And he told her that he had voted for Trump, and she said, oh, that’s it. Sorry, I can’t go out with you anymore.
So I mean—we’ve never seen—well, I mean, we have seen, of course, if we go back to the nineteenth century. But in recent American history, we haven’t seen this level of polarization. It’s not surprising it’s affecting religion. It’s affecting every place. It’s affecting where people choose to live, what neighborhood. I’ve heard of people looking at the voting statistics for a certain country before deciding to buy a house there to see if they were going to be living with Democrats or living with Republicans.
So we’re in an odd place in America, where politics seems to have dominated everything, and I think we’re in this for a little while. I don’t think we’re in this permanently.
COOPERMAN: That’s a great answer, Elaine, and I agree with it. I could throw in, Galen, to your question a little bit of a wonky answer.
I think it’s a terrific question as to whether the Evangelical label is attracting people who are basically really not Evangelicals into Evangelicals and for political reasons, and you might ask the reverse side of it—whether certain people who are theologically Evangelical are running away from Evangelicalism because of its attachments—the political labeling.
We did take a crack at this. The best way to do it was with longitudinal data. So you’re looking at the same set of respondents over time, and we did that with our American Trends Panel, about ten thousand people.
And we looked at those people from 2016 to 2020 and took people who are in both sets of studies and looked at their attitudes toward Trump and what happened with them, and then the Evangelical label.
To make a long story short, we did not find evidence that there are a lot of people leaving Evangelicalism because of the political label. We did find some evidence that there are some people who became Evangelicals or adopted that label, who are supportive of Trump, had conservative political views over those years.
Having said that, though, the notion that the broad mass of people who identify as Evangelical Protestants are really not religious, and they’re just political. I don’t think that that’s the case. What we found in 2016 and in 2020, and in our data all along, is that most of the people who self-identify as Evangelical answer a variety of other questions in ways that indicate they actually are traditionally religious in lots of ways.
They tend to be people who say they go to church often. They tend to be people who say they believe in God with absolute certainty. They tend to be people who say religion is very important in their lives, and so on, and much more than, say, mainline or non-Evangelical Protestants, or other groups of the population.
So this notion that somehow or other Evangelicalism as a whole, that the label is religiously empty today, I might say it’s a little bit in play. You’re not wrong to worry that things are going on with politics. But it’s not a false label as far as I can see.
REESE: But I think one of the other things is we’ve seen a different impact depending on whether a church has a congregational model of governance or a hierarchal.
I mean, we’ve seen a lot of Evangelical pastors who, if they speak out against Trump, they’re fired. Whereas, in Catholic Church, it’s more hierarchical so the people can’t fire their priest.
COOPERMAN: Well, remember, even among the Evangelicals, Tom, and Galen, even if my numbers hold up—and in recent elections we’ve had Evangelicals—self-identified, white Evangelical Protestants—I’m going to limit it to white for political reasons, not for theological reasons—voting roughly four to one Republican, that still means that 20 percent are not voting Republican.
I mean, it’s not an unappreciable share, and these elections are very tight. And it isn’t—Galen’s very aware—there are prominent Evangelical voices who are not Trump supporters, and who are not white supremacists or Christian nationalists.
And we should be careful not to throw too broad a brush, and I certainly don’t want to be accused of it. I’ve given some numbers that indicate sort of the overall tilt of religious groups, but by no means should that—should people take that to mean that everybody in those religious groups has exactly the same position.
They don’t. There’s a lot of nuance and variance, and there is some movement over time.
REESE: Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I want to thank our panelists for bringing their wealth of knowledge and experience to this conversation.
And now, I’ll turn it over to Irina.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, all. This was really a great hour. We appreciate your taking the time to do this, and to all of you for being with us.
We encourage you to follow their work. You can find Alan Cooperman’s work on PewResearch.org—that is the website; Elaine Kamarck’s work on Twitter at @elainekamarck; and of course, the Brookings website is Brookings.edu. You can follow Father Tom at @thomasreesej. And, obviously, you can follow us at @CFR_Religion. We will send out a link to this webinar, the video, and the transcript as well as a link to the report that Alan referenced today, and anything else—Elaine, if you have something that you want to share with the group, we’d be happy to circulate that.
As always, send us your comments and feedback, suggestions for other ideas we should cover in this series and speakers to [email protected], and just please join us for our next religion and foreign policy webinar on the future of nuclear weapons on Tuesday, November 8, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time.
So thank you, all, again. We really appreciate it.
KAMARCK: Thank you.
COOPERMAN: Thank you.
KAMARCK: Thank you.